UFC’s first trip to Croatia lacked a big fight until this morning when the promotion announced a heavyweight clash between Ben Rothwell and Junior Dos Santos, which will headline the April event.
‘Big Ben’ Rothwell has cultivated a cult following in recent times and a lot of people feel as though he has not been given the breaks his four-fight winning streak deserves. On January 30 in Newark, Rothwell shocked the world with his submission win over grappling icon and former UFC champ Josh Barnett. Taking on another former champion on April 10, a win over the Brazilian heavyweight will only strengthen his claims for title contention.
Rothwell appeared to be left on the shelf by UFC earlier this year in October when he was due to face Stipe Miocic in Dublin. Miocic pulled out with an injury 11 days before the co-main event meeting was due to go down, and in his capacity as a guest fighter, Rothwell endeared himself to the European fans who rallied around him due to his unfortunate situation.
To make matters worse for the former IFL champion, Andrei Arlovski, who also attended the Dublin event as a guest fighter, was confirmed to meet Miocic at UFC 195 in January while the two heavyweights were getting through their various media obligations in the Irish capital. If Rothwell fans believed that UFC were simply trying to align Miocic with a title shot back in October, their skepticism was added to when Cain Velasquez was forced out of his bout with Fabricio Werdum. The promotion immediately announced that Miocic would fight the Brazilian for his title instead of Velasquez, but when Werdum subsequently pulled out of the bout, it never went ahead.
When the news was officially announced this morning at 9 am by the UFC’s European team in London, there was a sense of genuine excitement because it has been very rare for the European market to host high quality heavyweight bouts. Rothwell’s cancelled bout with Miocic was celebrated for similar reasons on its announcement, and when the bout was cancelled Irish fans were very vocal with their disappointment.
Considering Dos Santos as an opponent for the American, there were a lot of mixed reactions to ‘Cigano’ being pitted against ‘Big Ben’. A lot of fans consider Rothwell to be closer to the title than his sixth place in the rankings suggests. With Dos Santos coming off a loss to Alistair Overeem back in December and clocking a record of 2-3 in last five Octagon outings, there is a common feeling that the Brazilian is on the downside of his career having endured so many brutal rounds against Cain Velasquez in their last two meetings.
That being said, Overeem’s stock has never been higher since he saw off the former Brazilian heavyweight champion. The fact that Dos Santos has held the championship title can only help Rothwell should he walk away from the Zagreb showdown with a win. The American’s current four-fight wins streak began with a victory over the Dutch K-1 legend, so it would be difficult for UFC to give Overeem the title nod ahead of ‘Big Ben’.
At present, the most frustrating thing about the heavyweight division for its fighters and the fans of the sport is that the bracket is more or less on hold until Fabricio Werdum returns from injury. Even though Cain Velasquez was penciled in for an immediate rematch against the jiu-jitsu phenom following his loss at UFC 188, his withdrawal from what was meant to be UFC 196 may have obscured the AKA man from the contest on his return.
While Stipe Miocic was called upon as soon as Velasquez’s injury was confirmed, he has been left in a very tricky situation due to the injuries of the championship duo. Had everything gone according to plan for the part-time firefighter, his victory over Arlovski in early January would put him on a direct path to the winner of Werdum versus Velasquez 2 which was due to take place on February 6. Historically, waiting around for a title shot has not been a lucrative business for fighters in a similar situation, so a matchup with fellow top-ranked heavyweights Overeem may be called for as Werdum and Velasquez work their way back to full fitness.
Both Dos Santos and Rothwell have a lot to prove in Zagreb. ‘Cigano’ has a win over Werdum, a loss that cost ‘Vai Cavalo’ his UFC career back in 2008, so there will be no shortage of material to sell their grudge match should Dos Santos be thrust into his fifth UFC championship bout off the back of win over Rothwell.
Having defied the odds to reach the heights he has already in the division, a loss to Dos Santos in Croatia would be absolutely devastating for Rothwell. As more and more fans clamor onto his bandwagon as he fortifies his place in the win column, surely a win over Dos Santos would nearly guarantee ‘Big Ben’ a crack at the belt.
However, if UFC 196’s withdrawn championship duo remain on the sideline and Rothwell claims a victory over Dos Santos, why not match him with Miocic again? It’s a bout that is sure to be a hit with the fans following the despair of the cancellation of their co-main event meeting in Ireland.
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